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Everyone who knows Heru John Basil pretty much says the same thing: "One of the heaviest cats I know. You should see his record collection. Awesome." Color me intrigued (and jealous; I've seen it).
I first encountered Basil by chance at the Costa Mesa Memphis Café in April. He was spinning one of his too-infrequent DJ sets during the Abstract Workshop. But his set was unlike any I'd ever heard there, or anywhere. Basil was laying down strange, beautiful, rarefied prog rock; spacey, alien electronic pieces from the '70s; groovy, quirky library music; and the odd Herbie Mann cut, just to keep things a bit ... grounded. I soon started trainspotting and asking questions. I discovered in Heru John Basil a real-deal, underground-culture guru.
The tall, longhaired, Italian-American 40-year-old strikes a heroic figure in person. But Basil is humble almost to a fault and not prone to self-promotion. Living in relative anonymity, he works part-time at Costa Mesa's excellent Ubiquity Records, filling orders in the warehouse and curating the label owners' huge vinyl stash. He's also been taking courses in 3-D computer design and serves as a consultant for Los Angeles vintage boutique Tabloid and the L.A. Record free weekly. He creates music that's as intricately detailed and surreal as the finest Dalí paintings. And, as noted, Basil occasionally DJs.
But all of this is mere window dressing for what Basil is really about: Initiates International.
"Initiates International is really a concept," Basil explains. "It's supposed to be an institution that prides itself on critical analysis of occult information and disinformation. It's a challenge to society to look for rational intellectual answers beyond world religions. I'm trying to break the chain of religion and ritual. I'm not a cult leader.
"Real answers lie in anomalous archeology, science, linguistics," Basil continues. "Music [is] just a medium of experimentation with harmonic waves."
Heady stuff, for sure. And Basil's music attains similar lofty realms. He began drumming as a 4-year-old (!), took guitar lessons at age 8 and started messing with the bass at 13. Basil played guitar in bands throughout the '80s and '90s, the best-known of which are Sol and West Coast Harem. Those units toured and achieved some notoriety (KCRW's Jason Bentley interviewed Basil in 1993), and Peter Wermelinger includes a 12-inch by each group in his respected collectors' reference book The Funky & Groovy Music Records Lexicon.
While Basil claims his influences largely lie outside music, as a youth he loved Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page and Frank Zappa. "Miles Davis showed me the way as far as attitude and exploring with a menacing quality," he says. "I love the tension, darkness and the grooviness of Funkadelic." Other factors that shaped Basil's aesthetics include such avant-garde composers as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Morton Subotnick and Tod Dockstader; guitarist Lenny Breau; and soundtracks to "groovy films" and giallos (bizarre Italian horror flicks).
Basil describes his band tenures with Sol (retro instrumental funk) and West Coast Harem (progressive jazz fusion) as "failed democracies, too many cooks. It seemed directionless."
But these sour experiences spurred Basil to start Initiates International, under whose aegis he exerted total artistic control. The first Initiates release was 1998's New Aeon, recorded as Heru Avenger with drummer Craig Teigen of LA's Afrobeat Down. The four epic tracks evoke Hawkwind at their most cosmic and expansive, with hints of the disciplined, improvisational funk of Miles Davis' On the Corner and Get Up With It.
Heru Avenger's next release, Magique Mistress (1999), contains marathon, cyclical Afrobeat funk jams with spidery, fluid Michael Karoli-esque guitar and some Agharta/Pangaea spectral jazz ambience, inducing an awestruck stasis.
As Non-Stop, Basil and guitarist Body Rodgers of RTX (Jennifer Herrema's post-Royal Trux ensemble) released Paris to Berlin in 2002. Basil describes the disc as "a cold and icy late-'70s examination of the future of new wave, French and German electronics with a measure of glitter." I hear Autobahn hypnosis, the European equivalent of white-line fever, as the drum-machine rhythms remain constant while the guitarists paint vivid slashes of color and goopy texture over them.
The last Initiates release to date, Basil & Friends' Equations Concrète (2005), is influenced by "early-'70s Euro jazz; it's very stripped-down, to the point of playing lots of modal ideas and not embellishing tonal centers."
All of those works deserve quality listening time, yet they remain unjustly obscure (you may find copies on eBay or Amazon, or you can contact the man himself). Basil maintains a typical modesty about his endeavors.
"By the time '98 rolled around, it was hard to consider myself a musician," Basil confesses. "I'm really a conceptualist. It just so happens that for many years, I tried to use music as a medium."
Disillusioned with the music industry and now focusing more on non-musical activities, Basil admits it may be time to leave behind his bohemian ways and try to get a "real" job.
But it's hard to imagine Basil ditching music-making. His next creative phase will likely involve recording library music—concise, made-to-order instrumentals destined for TV and movies that flourished in Europe in the '60s and '70s. Ironically, the mercenary nature of these pieces generated tons of innovative music that goes for astronomical sums among collectors.
"Now I'm trying to do [clever] one- to five-minute numbers because I really love library music," Basil says. Judging by the hundreds of world-class LPs of the stuff he possesses, he better than anyone seems eminently qualified to revive that noble tradition. Failing that, he can always sell his record collection—again.